Kumamoto Report

Schools start back up on Monday, May 9, following Golden Week holidays. Since most shelters are in schools, they will close at that time. Those who cannot return to their homes will be moved to other shelters, which will remain open an undetermined period of time. Earthquakes currently occur about every 2 hours, so people are still fearful. Water is running in most areas, but many water pipes broke (no wonder when you see the above picture!) contaminating the water supply for the foreseeable future. Food and water is being delivered to grocery stores but run out within hours. Gasoline is available in many areas. Quite a few older people have not been able to clean up their homes, because they are not strong enough and need help. At our four concerts this week, we passed out fliers with contact info for the Kyushu Christian Relief Center at Harvest Church, where volunteers are pouring in from around the country and around the world to meet such needs. At one shelter, we passed out mats to people who were only sleeping on a blue tarp or blanket. There are reports of the Noro virus spreading through shelters. There are reports of radioactivity coming up through cracks in the ground.

Needs are greater in rural areas but harder to get to. The Kyushu Christian Relief Center is sending out teams well over 2 hours each way to these areas with supplies and able hands to move debris. There were over 40 volunteers staying at the Relief Center (with limited running water and only two bathrooms!) but many others stayed in nearby hotels. The hotel we stayed in had running water but no drinking water in the building. There were cracks throughout the walls in our hotel room.

Pastors from all over Kumamoto gathered at the Relief Center this week for the first time since the earthquake to talk about needs in their churches and communities. I sat in for part of the meeting, hearing one pastor talk about his home being severely damaged and his family now living in a shelter. It gave me renewed vision to connect with the artists of Kumamoto, and on Tuesday and Wednesday, I was able to connect with some of them: a classical guitarist, a singer songwriter, a DJ, a pianist, and a outdoor event organizer. They are all doing volunteer work to encourage people in shelters.

Those who find themselves unhurt, with minimal damage to their homes, and supplies of food and water, feel it is their responsibility to respond in some way. A teacher was running one of shelters we visited. PTA moms were running another. Many people in Kumamoto are giving everything of themselves to care for others.
(Photographs by Riz Crescini, CRASH Japan, who we met last week.)


Relationship Building

Can you imagine staying in a shelter...aftershocks every two hours that powerfully shake the ground beneath your feet, rattling windows, and bringing gasps to everyone around you? Cardboard boxes are everywhere, containing emergency supplies or providing mats for sleeping. Lights are often switched off giving a mysterious cave-like feel to long corridors. Some shelters are dirty with sand walked in from parking lots. Some shelters have no running water or contaminated water at best. Some have nothing but thin tarps to sleep on, but some like the picture above have tents to provide the illusion of privacy. Announcements over speakers are loud and frequent. All of this has a deleterious dehumanizing effect.

The most important part of concerts in shelters is relationship building. First, we have to build trust with the leaders of the shelter by clearly explaining our intentions. ("We are here to help and play music. We are working with a Christian relief center, but we are not here to proselytize.")
Posing post-concert with leaders of a shelter in an elementary school
Then, we have to build trust with people through our music, as we attempt to bring a humanizing effect on a shelter. If we do it right, the music will open doors to relationships. Some people come up to us to learn more about the instruments or music.

Others want to ask questions about our "strange" and foreign lives, giving us an opportunity to ask about theirs. Children accept us as close friends and teach us all kinds of games.

Almost always, someone will approach with the words "I play too!" and share something.

The experience for me was overwhelmingly powerful, even life-changing. Playing music for people who are "doing fine" is like living in a world of black and white, stagnant and meaningless like BGM in a convenience store. What a contrast to a situation like this, where people respond so deeply to the music...with laughter, tears, and memories! This is when the true power and purpose of music is revealed, to bring color and depth to our lives and to help us connect intimately with others. We forget until these things are lost. Music is designed to humanize!


Kumamoto Week 2

Ellie Honea, clarinet & piano  /  Rachel Reese, violin  /  Roger Lowther, organ
I returned to Tokyo for prior commitments, but it gave me a chance to get my organ and recruit musicians to return to Kumamoto with me! We returned to Kumamoto again this past Monday. There are many stories to tell, including stories from the people who shared their lives with us at the concerts, but I need to get some rest. For now, here are some pictures from the first day.
Sending the organ from Tokyo to Kumamoto

Morning meeting and devotional at Harvest Church in Kumamoto
Roger on the phone trying to make a plan for the day
We joined a "takidashi" (cookout) team of volunteers at Uki City Hall
Setting up the organ
"Play more! Play more!"
About 300 people filed past us over a 2 hour period of time to eat freshly cooked meat and vegetables, with tears occasionally moving down their cheeks as they listened to the music. During breaks, we had amazing conversations with people and feel grateful for how people opened their lives to us.


Pray for Kumamoto

  1. Rescue and relief workers to be successful and safe while working around structurally unsound buildings.
  2. Comfort and rest for people staying in shelters and sleeping in cars amidst constant fear of aftershocks.
  3. Strength and wisdom for local churches, to know how best to respond to this crisis with limited resources.
  4. Unity between Christian workers across churches and denominations, sharing gospel community with surrounding neighborhoods.
  5. Wisdom for the Lowther family to determine how much and in what ways to be involved. 

When Japan reopened to the world in the mid 1800s, the powerful Hosokawa Samurai Clan in Kumamoto invited the American Leroy Janes to start a school in Western studies. (You can visit the Hosokawa House within the broken walls of Kumamoto Castle.) Many young men became Christians through Janes’ teaching, and on the last Sunday of January in 1876, a group went to a hill on the outskirts of town and made a solemn vow to “preach the gospel, even at the sacrifice of their lives.” After severe social persecution, many became famous Christian leaders known as the “Kumamoto Band,” influencing all of Japan.

Perhaps God is raising a new “Kumamoto Band” through this earthquake? Young people will be leading the relief movement, embodying what it means to be church to surrounding communities and tasting full-time Christian ministry for the first time. We saw how this affected the lives of so many after the 3.11 disaster in Northern Japan. (Read “The Unexpected Calling” by Virginia Lavallee, my wife’s sister, about how God brought her and others into Christian ministry this way.)


Needs in Kumamoto


"The power of music and culture has never been more important.
Musicians are best in playing music, so be musicians.
Give that which you most have to give!"
〜Facebook post by Kumamoto resident
Empty 7/11 next to Harvest Church in downtown Kumamoto. Only alcohol and cigarettes are left.
What are the needs in Kumamoto? Supermarkets are empty, and water is not running. The Japanese self-defense force and non-profit organizations are doing a good job of keeping shelters supplied with both in Kumamoto City. Atsushi Kabeya, Grace Harbor Church staff who traveled with us from Tokyo, spent a day searching outside the city, bringing supplies to surrounding rural areas, and afterward reporting on those needs to the base camp at Harvest Church. He built connections with shelters near Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan, which had a small eruption after the earthquake. (Will constant aftershocks bring a more serious eruption?) We have been asked to give concerts at two of those shelters as soon as possible.

Around 184,000 people reside in evacuation shelters and many more sleep in their cars, but this number will decrease significantly when aftershocks abate, water is restored, and food returns to the shelves. It is currently thought 7,500 people will be displaced long-term, living in temporary housing for years until their homes are rebuilt. Biggest needs now are to clean up rubble and relieve fears in the midst of constant aftershocks. Long-term are yet to be determined, but for now music can help. "The power of music...has never been more important. Musicians...give that which you most have to give!"
Houses in Kumamoto (Taro Karibe/GETTY)


Surveying the Damage, Making a Plan

We arrived at Hakata Christ Church in Fukuoka at 4 am, and after a short rest, gathered for an early morning breakfast and meeting before heading on the road.

Group picture in front of truck before heading on the road
Traffic was horrendous, bottle-necked by closed expressways. It took over 4 hours to reach Harvest Church in downtown Kumamoto, which had opened doors to be a gathering place for supplies and information.
Unloading supplies from our truck
Organizing supplies at Harvest Church in Kumamoto

Fukuda-san confirming destination with locals
We made a plan and headed around the city in two groups, seeing damage along the way: Cracked roads and sidewalks, broken glass, collapsed fences and buildings, and fallen kawara (clay roof tiles). The most symbolic destruction were the fallen walls of Kumamoto Castle, one of the top three castles in Japan.
Fallen wall blocking road
This apartment building fell by one floor, crushing cars beneath. The earthquake happened in the middle of the night when everyone was home. I can't imagine trying to flee from a falling building...

Another apartment building that fell one floor
Fallen wall around Kumamoto Castle
Fallen wall and tower around Kumamoto Castle
Broken entranceway
“People are scared,” Minami-san told us, leading a shelter of 300 at Kumamoto Keiryo Junior High School. His voice was barely audible from constant talking and yelling. “They don’t feel safe in their homes at night, and come here looking for rest and sleep.” As he was talking, a medium-sized tremor shook the ground, rattling windows around us. “Everyone away from the glass!” he yelled in a cracked voice, and everyone did.

Once calm was restored, we continued. “What are your biggest needs?” we asked. “We do not need supplies. We need ways to calm people. He talked about exercise programs and other ideas, but lit up when he heard I was a musician. “Yes, THAT is what is we need most right now!” It was very moving for me to hear him say that. In a disaster, people need food, water, and shelter. They need clothes to stay warm. But people also need art and music!

Deciding what to do next. More to follow...
Sunday night April 17 outside Kumamoto Keiryo Junior High (Photo by Minami-san)


Kumamoto Earthquake 2016

On Friday, April 14 at 9:26 pm a 6.2 earthquake struck beneath Kumamoto City in Kyushu, Japan. I felt it in Tokyo even though it was 750 miles away. On Sunday, April 16 at 1:25 am, a much bigger 7.0 earthquake struck that same region. At least 41 people were killed, 3,000 were injured, and more than 44,000 have been evacuated from their homes. Over a million people are without gas, electricity, or water. All train service in Kyushu has stopped due to torn electrical lines, immobilizing over 13 million people. This is the strongest earthquake to hit Japan since March 11, 2011.

Another earthquake? It's too soon...

My pastor, Fukuda-Sensei, pulled together a team of 5 others to drive with him the 1200 km (750 miles) to Kumamoto. His wife has family in the area. His wife's father used to be pastor of Hakata Christ Church, a Baptist church in Fukuoka, which will likely serve as a base camp for disaster relief, collecting info of needs and locations, traffic situations, and coordinating efforts.

This is all too familiar...

I am one of the drivers. We are driving a relief van and 2 ton truck full of supplies. On Sunday, we collected supplies through Oyumino Christian Church in Chiba, Grace City Church and Grace Harbor Church in Tokyo, and Tsukuda LOVES, our neighborhood relief organization, in Tsukishima. (It used to be called "Tsukuda LOVES Tohoku", but the target area for relief work has expanded.)

Collecting supplies in my music studio
The truck left Chiba at 5 am Monday morning to get us and our collected goods in Tokyo. Halfway there, the front left tire blew up with a bang, followed by a thump thump thump thump...

Blown tire on relief truck
After calling the insurance company, a tow truck came, changed the tire, and the truck continued to a garage where 4 new tires were put on. (We sure did get a lot of mileage out of those tires!)

Filling the truck with supplies in Tokyo
Departure was delayed 7 hours, and we did not get on the road until 1 pm. It is a 15 hour drive to Fukuoka plus rest stops, traffic, etc. (Holes in the road from the earthquakes?) It's going to be a long night. Tomorrow we will make the three hour drive to Kumamoto. Will keep you updated...